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Street vendors join crusade for better health, better food


At first glance, Earl Dorsey Jr. seems an unlikely foot soldier in the crusade for good nutrition. A street vendor more or less since he was 11 years old, Mr. Dorsey is a slender, unassuming man with a pony named Kit, a rare smile and a tough life.

But listen to him talk -- for five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes -- and you realize he is also a man with a passion for the produce he sells, an almost missionary zeal for informing his customers about the benefits of "pure, natural" fruits and vegetables.

He also has a fairly sophisticated idea of how fruits and vegetables work to protect people from high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.

"Scientists are finding out more and more every day about what these fruits and vegetables do," he says. While he talks, he arranges the items on his cart, parked at the corner of W. Redwood and Greene streets in the University of Maryland Medical School complex, plumping up a bunch of grapes, stacking plums more agreeably, aligning ears of corn into a green fan.

"I talk to my customers, I try to get them to try things. I tell them, try a fruit salad, try an ear of corn. They listen. I'm trying to convince them every day. I see more and more customers eating fruit."

He pauses to sell a banana. Mr. Dorsey, 38, works up and down the area of Eutaw and Greene streets, from Camden Yards to Lexington Market. It was this beat, and his cart full of fresh produce, that attracted the attention of Sarah Reese-Carter, a nurse of 20 years who is a member of a community health task force at the medical school's Department of Family Medicine.

"We are working in five inner-city communities that have a very high incidence of diabetes and hypertension," Ms. Reese-Carter says. "One, we're looking to see why these specific communities have such a high incidence and two, what kinds of things can be done" to reduce illness and death from such causes. "In the past year what we've run across is that there are many different programs" on specific health and nutrition issues -- cholesterol education, for instance, or anti-smoking messages. "But, for whatever reason, these programs are not getting to the communities."

During June, designated National Fruit and Vegetable Month, Ms. Reese-Carter was seeking a motif to illustrate the message of "Strive for 5," to encourage people to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. She thought of the image of a vendor with horse and cart, a traditional sight on Baltimore's streets.

And then the light went on: The street vendors did get into the community. They talked to people. They had fruits and vegetables right there at hand. They could sell the concept of eating fresh produce for health, not just for a month, but all the time.

jTC "It was one of the most logical avenues," says Ms. Reese-Carter. "You can put pamphlets in the grocery store and have people pick them up, but it's the interaction between human beings, that one-on-one contact" that will make an idea stick.

Starting at the stable

But first she had to sell the vendors on the idea. She started at the area around the stable, where the vendors (traditionally called "arabbers," for their nomadic ways) pick up their produce. "I just kept going every day" for a while, she said, talking to people, explaining the role they could play, allowing them to get comfortable with the idea. I thought they were very receptive." So far, she said, three or four vendors have signed on for the program.

Dr. Edward Pecukonis, director of behavioral science training in the Department of Family Medicine and a member of the task force, believes that using "a piece of Baltimore culture that the community really understands and relates to" is the key in getting the message out. "They're widely known, widely accepted, widely embraced," he said. "It's useful to these fellows too, the guys with the carts and ponies," he said. "It gives them a marketing device."

Mr. Dorsey immediately saw the advantages of carrying information along with his produce. "I have a lot of old people, they can't get to the market," he says. "Fruit is important to them. Even little kids -- I try to get little kids involved."

Ms. Reese-Carter and her student intern, Shelley Wortham, have been supplying Mr. Dorsey with a bunch of balloons to decorate his cart every day, and a big poster encouraging consumption of fruits and vegetables. They also supply him with pamphlets to hand out.

Part of the problem of community outreach, Ms. Reese-Carter says, is matching resources to neighborhoods. "There are pockets with literacy problems, and some of the materials we have looked at are not sensitive to the community." Suggestions for carrying an apple "in your briefcase" or putting fruit "in your desk," aren't useful for people who don't have offices or desk jobs.

Sharing experience

For years, "I couldn't get a job," Mr. Dorsey says, touching up the bright brass decorations on Kit's tack. "So I had to make up my own thing." As a child, he would follow the vendor wagons, because he loved horses. But his path to a rig of his own was not straight. "I made a wrong turn," he says, "I was into drugs. I'm not ashamed to say that." But he found a way to turn his back on "that disease," and it's left him something of a zealot.

"I sit down with a bunch of younger people, I share with them," Mr. Dorsey says. "One thing I can say to them, 'It's not easy.' I share how it is to get up in the morning and do a job -- I'm out here on the street in the hot sun, in the rain, anybody could come up and put a gun in my face for the money I've got on me.

"These kids, they think life is putting a bunch of drugs in your body and picking up a gun. I tell them, years from now, they're going to wish they had the education," he says. He wants them to get the idea that good health is important. "You know, when your body breaks down, it's because something that's supposed to be natural in your body's gone. You've got to put back in your body what you take out."

Mr. Dorsey pauses to feed the patient Kit a juicy plum. "I'd like for people to know fruit's important. Fruit even helps your hair and the complexion of your skin. These fruits and vegetables can help anybody."

Ms. Reese-Carter doesn't plan to stop working with the street vendors. She's also looking at public libraries and community recreation centers. "If we can get people to wear seat belts and recycle garbage," she says, "we can get them to prevent health problems."

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